Putting the weather on ice

Sam Fraser-Baxter catches up with a Fiji-born weather technician with a newfound love for the cold

Heavy snow is falling as Anuragh Chandra checks the air temperature at his latest work site.

Taking wind chill into account it is -26°C. Chandra grins. 

Just two years ago, he was living and working in Fiji. Now, he’s battling the elements, trying to set up a weather station in the coldest place on earth.

He feels like he’s been on a rollercoaster recently, but the Christchurch-based NIWA instruments technician is relishing the ride.

Chandra grew up on Vitu Levu, Fiji’s largest island, and his career as a weather technician could be described as a ‘happy accident’.

After enjoying science classes in high school, Chandra decided to study electronic engineering at university. He needed to complete work experience to graduate, so applied for an internship with the Fiji Meteorological Service.

“In Fiji when you talk about electronics, you’re mostly talking about radios, televisions, receivers and transceivers. But when I went to the weather office and I saw all these electronic applications, I thought ‘Woah, this is really cool.’”

Another brisk day at the office for the NIWA installation team.

Just weeks after starting, a technician who managed the weather surveillance radars suddenly left. Their responsibilities were now his. It was 2003, and Chandra was 22-years-old.

“When I looked inside the weather radar’s transmitter cabinet, everything just looked too complicated. I thought ‘Maybe this is not my cup of tea...’”

Chandra backed himself and, after furious study of the radar’s manual, managed to fix the instrument.

Recognising talent, the Fiji Meteorological Service took him on full-time and, over the next 13 years, he worked his way up the ranks to become a senior technician, developing the skills needed to plan, install, and maintain a full array of weather monitoring instrumentation.

Along the way, he worked with NIWA technicians on a major upgrade of Fiji’s automatic weather network, and Chandra started wondering what it would be like to take his new skills to the colder climes of New Zealand.

Like many developments in his career, it happened sooner than expected.

By 2018, he had landed a job at NIWA’s Christchurch office as an instrument technician.

The role involves helping to manage NIWA’s network of more than 100 weather stations and requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of the technology, combined with an acute understanding of the climate science the data is used for.

With weather stations sited in all corners of the South Island, he’s also been able to test himself against the full rigours of New Zealand’s winter.

“In Fiji, a cold day is 19 degrees, so I was really looking forward to living in Christchurch and seeing if I could survive.”

Chandra hasn’t just survived – he has flourished. He says visiting stations on both islands and training NIWA field technicians has been an amazing opportunity to develop his professional capabilities. He’s also loved the cold, watching the leaves change colour and the shorter, darker winter days.

Then, one night in October 2020, Chandra’s phone rang. It was his manager, Andrew Harper.

“He said ‘Do you want to go to the ice?’ And I said ‘Yeah, why not?’”

There has been a weather station at Scott Base recording climate data since 1957, and it has played a crucial role in charting Antarctica’s changing climate. However, a new station needed to be installed as part of the Scott Base upgrade.

One of his colleagues had to pull out of the job and Chandra had just two weeks to prepare before joining environmental monitoring technician Alec Dempster in isolation for the 14-day pre-trip Covid quarantine period.

Chandra recalls those days as a chaotic blur of excitement and uncertainty.

But, in late November, he was aboard a Hercules aircraft packed with the latest meteorological equipment and headed for the ice.

“We landed and I couldn’t believe I was standing on frozen ocean. It was a proud feeling. I never imagined that I would end up there so early in my career. For my family and friends back home, it was a big moment. People from Fiji don’t get to go to Antarctica."

“I can still remember my excitement levels when I was seeing everything for the first time: ice for the first time, daylight at night for the first time, Scott Base for the first time. It felt like we were on a mission like we were on the moon.”

Chandra says it normally takes two technicians about three days to install an automatic weather station in New Zealand. But, due to the challenges posed by Antarctica’s extreme conditions and remote location, it took Chandra and Dempster 16 days.

Chandra says the successful install is, without a doubt, the proudest accomplishment of his career.

“What we did at Antarctica, it looks so small, but it’s so special. The data is going to be used for so many things, for so many applications, for so many purposes."

“I’m proud I’ve played some part in making this information available to all those scientists and researchers.”

This story forms part of Water and Atmosphere - August 2021, read more stories from this series.

Anuragh Chandra flies the Fiji flag in front of Scott Base’s new weather station earlier this year.